Sterling Plumpp: Interview
This interview was recorded on three afternoons in September and October of 2003. A small portion of it was published in Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies, in 2005. This is the first publication of the full text.
Sterling Plumpp and I met in the lounge of the Arts Club of Chicago, recorded for an hour or more, and then continued our discussions over lunch, where I took a few additional notes on his comments and added these to the transcript. I edited the full version by putting together Plumpp’s separate comments about one subject or another to form four sections, each with a focus.
Plumpp retired from his professorship at the University of Illinois at Chicago at the end of 2001—a tall, physically powerful-looking man in his early sixties, an intellectually powerful man who is also an energetic talker. His conversation reveals his interest in both the literary and the political. Many are the boundaries across which his experience has taken him: familial, social, linguistic, educational, literary and artistic, musical, political, geographical. This interview can encompass only a little of what Plumpp has to say, and I would especially like to hear more of his observations on the Mississippi of his birth and youth, and the Chicago of his young manhood. I hope there will be other occasions for him to convey some of his extraordinary and extraordinarily representative personal journey to readers.
There was lots of laughter from Sterling Plumpp during these hours of interviewing—laughter that cannot be transcribed, although once in a great while, where it is particularly expressive, I have indicated it in brackets. I would call this laughter the mark of intellectual glee, which does not mean happiness. I think that Plumpp was laughing simply because of his pleasure in thinking about poetry, history, and African America, and because the history he knows so well (social, political, and literary) is so fraught with dilemmas, contradictions, and nearly incomprehensible outcomes. One can laugh not only with triumph or irony, astonishment or puzzlement, but with admiration for wit and courage and endurance, and also with dismay and sheer wonder at sorrow, weakness, defeat, and injustice.
That Plumpp’s work is substantially represented in Keith Gilyard’s recent anthology of African American writing (2004); is the subject of an essay by John Edgar Wideman; and has been the focus of two small literary magazines, Arkansas Review and Valley Voices, may mean that this poet, so independent and original, has begun to receive a portion of his due recognition. His unique fusion of a rhythmic fragmentation of language and flowing song is an artistic accomplishment of the first rank, an achievement with the degree of originality, emotional intensity, and intellectual power that we regard as great. In addition—it is needless to say, but would be an omission not to say—Plumpp’s poetic mode is analogous to the virtuosity of a master of post-bebop. Poetry, though, however rich its language may be in sound and rhythm, is unlike music in that it says what it means while it is singing. The meanings and the materials in Plumpp’s poetry—narratives of defeat and triumph, of lives most often excluded from public discourse, forgotten circumstances of humble life, metaphors drawn from field work and house work and hard work of all kinds, repetitions drawn from the blues, syntax repeatedly constructed to be expressive of multifarious signifying—are among the most necessary in American poetry.
STERLING PLUMPP: My aunt was on her deathbed with a stroke. She’s my mother’s sister, so I would go take care of her. She had a second-floor tenant who had the most powerful metaphor for black people I’ve seen, although he used the stereotype. He said, “Yestiddy evening,” he said, “niggahs out here on the porch like blackbirds on fences.” And the interesting thing about the metaphor is that when blackbirds are on the fences, they are almost like they are in battle formation; they’re not timid anymore, they own the turf. There’s something about the body language of the blackbird on the fence that you can reach out and touch. And it couldn’t be one blackbird—they’re in numbers. There’s something healthy about that image which led me to see a great deal of validity in what sociologists and newspapers call the ghetto. It’s not negative at all. There’s something about ownership of that place and that space, that language, the way they walk—they sell drugs there because they own that land. There’s something about that that I find healthy. It’s destructive, but there’s something about that attitude that says, “Hell no, these people ain’t going to die no time soon.”
REGINALD GIBBONS: A figure of strength.
SP: Yeah. It’s almost like the elation I felt when I saw New Jack City. I don’t like drug dealers, but there’s something about the emergence of Nino Brown, this African American who says, “This might be hell but shit I’mo rule it. I’m runnin’ this. Ain’t nobody gonna come in here and do anything except obey the laws that I construct. This is a business and I run it.”
RG: A capitalist business.
SP: But I run it. In this very decadent kind of place you get this kind of Toussaint L’Ouverture figure who’s defining turf independence. That’s what this is about.
RG: And defying the colonial power? Leon Forrest used to refer to the so-called ghettos as “occupied zones.”
SP: But this blood has defined a sphere of independence that’s independent. It’s an independent zone. I love it.
RG: Would you mind saying something about your family, and about Sanders Bottom?
SP: My maternal grandparents reared me from a time before I can remember until I was about fifteen years old. My grandfather died when I was fourteen years old, and I lived with my grandmother an additional two years. My grandfather was born in 1880, in Hinds County [Mississippi]—that’s the county where the state capital, Jackson, is—and he died in 1975.
Two salient points about his maturation: one is that when he was fourteen years old, he was in school, and someone threw a spitball and hit the teacher. She turned to him and asked him who did it, and he said he didn’t know. She was going to whip him and make him tell her. She brought a switch down and it hit him on the ear. And he lifted her up and took her to the heater—a wood-burning heater—in an attempt to burn her up, and his brothers and sisters stopped him.
The teacher’s name was Mrs. Mahoney—at that time I think there must have been white teachers. She told his mother that if she herself would come to school and whip Victor, he could come back to school, or if his mother would allow her, the teacher, to whip him, he could come back to school. His mother told him that now he was a man, and he did not go back. He was in the fourth grade, this child. About fourteen years old—I don’t know.
The other story is that there had been a horse that was very difficult to ride, and that one day while his mother was at church he went out and tried to ride the horse. The horse threw him, and this broke his shoulder. The story was that he had been so tough that he never told her about it, and for the remainder of his life, his left shoulder was higher than his right shoulder. Was permanently distorted. That’s by way of background.
My grandmother was born in 1890, and she died in 1993 at the age of 103. She also had two sisters who lived to be 100. The story that she told me, all her life, is that her mother had two children—herself and a brother a couple of years younger, by the name of Riley. Outside of wedlock. Then she was marrying a man who was very light, and he said that he wanted her, but he didn’t want those little nigger children. So her parents, the children’s grandparents, took them to school, and after church one day, asked would anybody take these children, because their mother couldn’t take care of them, wouldn’t take care of them. And her father’s sister took her in—and made her a servant, in her estimation.
Her brother Riley was so recalcitrant that he was given away to a white man to take care of, and the white man said that Riley had left, and it was not known whether he had left or he was killed, and his body never discovered.
So she lived with the Leamuses, doing all the work. Then when she became a woman, her cousin made sexual advances toward her, and when she told her uncle, he said he didn’t care what happened to her since there was no blood between them, only marriage. Her aunt took her back to her mother, and since her mother was happily married, she couldn’t live there, so [her mother] took [her] to church to find her a husband.
RG: How old was she then?
SP: She would have been about twenty-one or twenty-two. She was married at about twenty-three. She was born in 1890; she got married in 1913. And that way she found my grandfather, who came to church but who at that time had just got religion. He had been a gambler, someone who drank alcohol. And they were married for the next forty years or so, until he died. They had seven children, born between 1914 and 1929.
RG: And one of those was your mother?
SP: One was my mother. There was one born in 1914, one born in 1916, my mother born in 1920, an aunt born in 1922, an uncle born in 1924, an aunt born in 1925, and an uncle born in 1929. And now all of them are deceased. They died between 1980 and 2001.
RG: They did not all have the longevity of those hundred-year-olds?
SP: One lived to be eighty-seven. And one lived to be eighty-one . . . And as I understand it, Sanders Bottom was what would have been known as “heir property.”
RG: What does that mean?
SP: It would have been land that the family would have gotten somehow after slavery. You would be entitled to it if you were part of the family. But you wouldn’t have a deed to it. You could go there and build a house or be buried. This was called “heir property.” My grandfather never wanted anything to do with it, because of the way my grandmother had been treated when she was a child—but this is my grandmother’s testimony. But it was her testimony when she was in her fifties, and it was her testimony when I talked to her when she was in her late nineties. It was either true, or she believed it to be true. But for me, Sanders Bottom becomes a metaphor for the legacy of slavery in terms of my family relationship to the land: a difficult place to work, a difficult place to make a living. And outside of that land, you had the structure of segregation, of Jim Crow, intimidating and dehumanizing.
RG: And your mother?
SP: It’s complex. In 1937, the day after she turned seventeen, my mother gave birth to my brother, the first child she had outside of wedlock. She was living with my grandfather and grandmother. In 1940, I was the second child born, about eight months before she became twenty, but in 1941, she married a GI and moved away to Louisiana, and I don’t have any recollection of her until my sister was born in 1944. So I never bonded with her. She was not my mother—she was not the mother present; she was not the mother figure. She was my biological mother, but I have absolutely no recollection of her as my mother until I am four years old, when I am told that she is my mother. None. It’s not there.
RG: A lot of people can’t remember anything from before that age.
SP: No, no—she was not there, Reginald! But then I know that she is my mother. But then I don’t live with her at all until I’m about seventeen years old.
RG: She became a dominant figure in your imagination in the creation of your Blues Narratives, along with your grandfather.
SP: She is the reason that I’m here. And there’s nothing I can do about my childhood, the first sixteen or seventeen years of my life. She was not blessed with longevity so I could sit and talk to her about this complex kind of relationship I suppose she and I had. But I also knew that I couldn’t go forward without dealing with that part of the puzzle of my existence. I tried to deal with it when she died in 1980. And I couldn’t. And it’s only somewhere between 1995 and 2000 that I developed a kind of formula of how I could deal with the fact that I had been born a peasant and somehow been educated, and she had been born a peasant and her imagination seemed to remain within the orbit of folk dictates. So I don’t feel disappointment—is that the word? Because I simply wasn’t there. She didn’t do anything bad; I wasn’t there. Maybe I was hurt by the circumstances of her death; cancer killed her on the installment plan.
RG: How old was she when she died?
SP: She was 59.
RG: And how did you get your education?
SP: I suppose the earliest recollection that I have had about education was the story of Booker T. Washington. How he had been a slave. How he had been a fully grown man who could neither read nor write when slavery ended. How he worked hard all day and stayed up all night with the light of a candle, learning to read. Then how he goes on, a year after he graduates from Hampton Institute, and founds Tuskegee Institute. Then maybe I remember hearing about George Washington Carver, who arose from humble origin to become the Nobel-level candidate in biology with what he did with the peanut. I knew that literacy was an invaluable tool in one’s quest for both self-definition and self-empowerment. So I always wanted to be educated.
However, due to the situation I found myself in, I didn’t go to school at all until I was eight years old. I went to school initially in the fall of 1948, which would have put me almost three years behind. And never went to school a full term. I never went to school when school opened, and I was never at school when school ended. After the cotton had been picked, and all that stuff, I went to school; and when you started working the land, I quit. Therefore, in 1955, right before I turned fifteen, I moved to Jackson, and I’m in seventh grade. I go to a Catholic school and begin to do pretty well. I made Bs. But it’s only in high school that I made the straight A. I read the book. I read the textbook, to figure out how to answer the questions. Didn’t have a lot of books, but I read them. And studied. And then won a tuition-paid scholarship to Saint Benedict’s College in Atchison, Kansas, and it was there that I was exposed to Western literature. Because at that time, forty-three years ago, everybody had to take Western Civilization and Western Literature.
You began with the Greeks, with the Iliad, with the Odyssey, and then you came down through the plays—Aeschylus and Euripides—then the Divine Comedy. Not just Inferno but the whole Divine Comedy and some of the lesser works by Dante. Don Quixote. Milton: Paradise Lost as well as lesser work—“Samson Agonistes.” It inflamed the imagination. In the words of Richard Wright, I suppose, it excites an unquenchable hunger.
By the second year, I read “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin. And a funny thing happened in my mind. I had known when I read Dante, because of the way he was able to position people in this created world where he wanted them, putting popes and kings in hell—I knew the power of literature. There was no doubt about that. And I also knew the difficulty of faith, because I couldn’t understand why God would do what they did to Prometheus. You know—I’m a good Catholic boy, I didn’t understand, I didn’t get it. But at the same time, what Aeschylus was doing as a writer made me say, Oh yeah. These poets had been at work when I had ridden the back seats of buses in Mississippi.
No one told me the power of mythology—I discovered mythology through the written word. And if this is true (although I did not come to that conclusion, maybe I began that quest), perhaps what they are telling me about the god who formed this universe and his angels, perhaps that’s a mythology, too! Perhaps that’s a mythology that I can unravel. And in unraveling that mythology, maybe some of the things haunting my superego would dissipate.
RG: That’s a lot to happen to a young man in college! You published early books in Detroit. Did you go from college to there?
SP: No, I came from college to Chicago, and I was looking for a job, because my aunt could not support me any longer as a student, and I was looking for a job to make some money.
RG: She was here in Chicago?
SP: She was in Mississippi.
I got a job at the Chicago post office. Now, here are all these ideas, and I was working seven days a week, ten hours a day, and I still enrolled at Roosevelt University to take classes (I had been in college for two years at Saint Benedict). A fascinating thing happened: you confront that cold world of the city. People bleeding, being hit upside the head—but people partying. I was in my youth and didn’t understand it. We got paid every two weeks, and some people, if they got paid this Friday they wouldn’t have any money next Friday, or they would go out and engage in sexual escapades that they had to talk about . . .
Understanding up close what it means to be human. And at the time, reading everything James Baldwin had written, everything Richard Wright had written. Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, I read all of it. I discovered Amiri Baraka, everything Du Bois had written.
And you compartmentalize—oppression will do that to you: black people didn’t have any of the upper-echelon jobs; the job at the post office was considered a “good government job.” I’m twenty-two years old, supposed to be glad to be there, perhaps for the next thirty years, and I said, Hell no—no, I’m going to write books.
Now, people there said that everybody who came through the door was going to write books—about all sorts of naked humanity: people being thrown down stairs because they got some money from a juice man and didn’t pay it back; in many instances a white supervisor was caught in sexual intercourse with black women and the black women getting suspended or fired. You name it, it was happening.
I became politically active. I would picket before I would come to work. And then—bam!—at the end of ’63 I had to go into the army, for two years. It’s the worst thing that happened to me, and it’s probably the best thing that happened to me. Because unlike the post office where I was working those ten hours a day, seven days a week, I was in with these young men who did young-man things, and I was black and bookish, and I wanted to be a writer.
In fact, one of the first things I did, in early 1964, I found out that Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie was playing at the ANTA Theater in New York. I took a bus to New York, got off the bus in New York, took a train to my aunt’s house—she was living in Queens—took the train to Harlem . . . I can remember asking people, “Do you know how to get to the ANTA Theater?” and they said no, and I said, “Do you know where it is?” and they said no, but it didn’t take me long to figure that if I go away from Harlem and I get off in Grand Central Station or somewhere down there, it was easy. So I found the ANTA Theater there, and I also saw Baldwin, saw Diana Sands and Al Freeman Jr. in the play. Which was brilliantly acted. Jim Cunningham sent me Ellison’s Shadow and Act , sent me Baraka’s Dutchman , while I was in the army. I continued to try to write.
Before you have ever written anything, there’s a mystery of how you do what Jayne Cortez calls, “put your mouth on paper.” You don’t know exactly what the science of that is. So although I wrote a lot of autobiography—I was just jotting things down. The civil rights movement was going bad, people were being killed . . . A terrible time. All these things happening in Africa—Lumumba killed back in 1961; Kenya; and the war is heating up in Vietnam. But then you’re twenty-four, twenty-five, trying to write, you don’t know . . .
So I came out of the army with about two thousand dollars worth of records, because I listened to records all day, and the music that I liked best, probably in terms of my soul, maybe wasn’t blues, but folk music. Odetta. Maybe I still have about twenty LPs of Odetta. I loved the stories—I loved the narratives of these plain people who often have to do heroic deeds. I had seen blues in person. Then I learned jazz—I listened to Coltrane and Charlie Parker in the army.
It’s confusing. When you are rural, and you go see blues, and you’re educated, people think that that’s your entire life. So when I say that I went to see Howlin’ Wolf at Sylvio’s on the West Side, I also went down to McKie’s to see Kenny Dorham, to the Plug Nickel to see Thelonius Monk, somewhere to see Little Esther, Stanley Turrentine, Sonny Stitt. But I also went to the Regal to see the Five Du-Tones, Little Stevie Wonder, Rufus Thomas, Freddy King.
In other words, I think that that is was very confusing to whites who become aficionados of blues. They don’t know the difference between a juke joint and a show club. And much of the blues in the black community was in juke joints. Show clubs, they would have shake dancers, and you would get dressed up and go. But see, if you are educated you get access—so if you interview anyone my age who is black and educated, they had access to all that. But if they were simply a worker they would not have had access to the jazz.
RG: Did you move to New York?
SP: No, I visited my aunt. I went to New York specifically to see Blues for Mister Charlie.
RG: At Saint Benedict, had someone actually assigned “Sonny’s Blues” as reading?
SP: No, it must have been in a book edited by Herbert Gold, I want to think, as part of Western Literature—after John Dos Passos and Faulkner, we came to the contemporary and to Baldwin, and “Sonny’s Blues” was the story in the book. The professor, maybe it was Professor Newman, not a monk but a layperson, who told me that Baldwin was a black writer. Then I read the black encyclopedia. I read everything I could get on James Baldwin. I even read Giovanni’s Room [1956; a paperback was issued in 1966]. By the time The Fire Next Time  came, I had read everything he had written, before. Then I’m at a different point in my life—Another Country [1962; paperback 1968], The Fire Next Time—and when I read those books I feel let down. Maybe except for Going to Meet the Man [1965; paperback 1967], which is a collection of short stories. But that was the drama, the life I was seeing every day. To make art out of that! And I suppose I was intrigued by the black and white world that I found in Another Country. The understanding was not between people who were intellectuals; they were artists, outlaw types, outcasts, maybe. In the post office, I had been told that if I read so much of Baldwin, I might be switching, too!
RG: And your connection with Haki Madhubuti when he was Don L. Lee?
SP: After I got out of the army, I still wanted to be a writer. I would write, but then I had to get a degree, so I went to Roosevelt University and got a degree in psychology in 1968. And around 1966 or 1967, I met Don selling Think Black , and I bought copies, got his phone number, and eventually did Black Pride. I gave him some poems and eventually they were published. When they first founded the OBAC Writers Workshops and began to talk about black writing and the black aesthetic, I was fascinated by that, but a lot of what they were saying was not jibing with the writer I loved, James Baldwin. I knew Baldwin’s critique of Richard Wright and protest literature. I knew Ellison’s critique. And I never thought that I had read anyone who knew more about black culture than Ralph Ellison. I don’t know what I thought about Ellison’s need to create all of these white literary godfathers, or something like that—I don’t know that they ever created any godsons that looked like him!
But it doesn’t make any difference whether it’s Faulkner or whoever—you learn from whoever you learn from. And obviously there are a lot of great writers. So a lot of Ellison’s policy-implication sort of statements disturbed me, but I thought that he was a genius as a writer. Unmatched, in one novel. Very few people in the twentieth century match him in one book. And among those who do match him could very well be Faulkner and Leon Forrest. I think that Forrest’s Divine Days might, in time. But then, I’m southern. . . .
This idea of being a revolutionary writer—black power, black consciousness, at the individual level, is incredibly important. But if you look at some of the issues that were raised about Richard Wright by both Baldwin and Ellison, one of the things that you find yourself doing is putting yourself in a box where literature has to be didactic; you’re simplifying it, and you can’t get out of that box. On the one hand. On the other hand, you say that your model for literature is in jazz, but you don’t see any work that’s being published that has any of the complexity of jazz.
One of the things, it seems to me, that Broadside Press was exploiting, was what they thought was the new black vernacular, street language—and not the language maybe of Jay Wright. You see? Where is the complexity? Some people even attacked Robert Hayden. I love Brooks, but she never had the mastery of black history that that man had. “Runagate, Runagate,” “Middle Passage”!
You can’t intimidate people into falling in line with your popular ideological kind of statement. And just because people disagree with your statement doesn’t necessarily mean that they betray black people. I thought that was a real tragedy. The other tragedy was that Amiri Baraka, whose writing I love—the idea that he needs to give up his white wife and come to Harlem. I don’t think I need him to do that, and I don’t think Harlem needed him to do that. They need you to be honest, Leroy. And it does not appear that he took the same care with writing and constructing his poems after he moved uptown, that he was doing downtown. That’s the only observation I want to make. It seemed to me that he was informed more by the aesthetics of jazz, at the level of writing, when he was downtown.
RG: You have said about Brooks that her virtuosity is part of her commentary.
SP: I do feel that for all the people who talk about Brooks and her blackness, Brooks and her “relevance,” Brooks and perhaps that Maud Martha was written for white folks—I think they miss the point; they miss the whole damn point of what she was doing as a poet. The fact that she had mastered the ballad form, and the mock epic or whatever you want to call Annie Allen, the fact that she had put so much virtuosity and mastery in that book, elevates the theme that she is writing about. That’s what that does. That’s what that does.
RG: Did you want to write fiction, after reading Baldwin?
SP: I wanted to write fiction all my life, so I could get away from what James Baldwin calls the difficult task of keeping body and soul together by working! I still think I can tell stories, but the poetry came. My preoccupation with language, getting all wrapped up in language—here I am with my gift from God to write poetry, and I’m complaining about something, and this [once] made Leon Forrest tell me that I better be damn glad I could write anything!
RG: But you went from the desire to write fiction to the accomplishment of writing poetry. And you wrote early prose books. Did Don Lee publish your first book of poems?
SP: Don Lee published Portable Soul , Half Black, Half Blacker , and Steps to Break the Circle .
RG: How did that feel to you, when your first book came out?
SP: I suppose that what you imagine in typescript is always magical when you see it in print. Although it was not that elegant, and the book sort of seeped away. And Broadside published Clinton . It marked a very important change in my life, because Thunder’s Mouth Press then published Somehow We Survive  and The Mojo Hands Call, I Must Go. Everything else had been a chapbook, but The Mojo Hands Call, I Must Go won the Carl Sandburg literary prize. It was published in 1982 and won the prize in 1983. And then, the next two books are published by Another Chicago Press—because Lee Webster had been the editor at Thunder’s Mouth, and they split up. And the books that really sold more were Blues, the Story Always Untold  and then Johannesburg and Other Poems .
And by that time, the major concerns that I am involved with—identity, history, the South, blues, social change, South Africa—have been dealt with, and maybe the next three books, that form a coherent whole, are the next project, which is more being a self-conscious poet trying to deal with language and legacy, and that would be Horn Man , Ornate with Smoke , and Velvet Bebop Kente Cloth . Because what I’m trying to deal with there is the fact that I’m simply not a blues singer—and just as educated African Americans had to confront their folk past with the technique of jazz, somehow I had to bring the technique of jazz to my blues poetry in order to develop a personal voice. And by the time that I got to Ornate with Smoke, I was hearing language—I had been hearing it all along, and I didn’t know what to do with what I was hearing. And at some point I felt that I had to follow where the language led. And that led to Ornate with Smoke.
Bebop led me into Horn Man—I’m looking at a bebopper—and that led me to watch him specifically as that. What I found in Ornate with Smoke [is that] I would be looking at the post-bop beboppers, and some of their devices. And by the time I got to Velvet Bebop Kente Cloth, I had allowed this post-bop bebopper to become a narrator and comment on the importance of bebop. Because bebop becomes the moment when people find their voices in some kind of collective process of innovation.
Now, Blues Narratives is entirely different, because it grows out of this need—if I were to make the statement I want to make about my small geographical place in this huge scheme of things called life, in terms of family, in terms of voices, it was [the still unpublished] Mfua’s Song. And it was a work of labor that lasted some twenty years, and part of it’s still in progress. The great advantage of being an African American is that you can invent yourself any way you want to. And I had no desire to run away from my roots, in terms of family.
Trying to see slavery as a kind of a testing ground, a proving ground—somehow my story had to come clear through it. And then how would I pass it down? I don’t know if the story would have had the meaning that it did, had it not been for slavery. Maybe I would have taken the tale for granted. But it took a great deal of difficulty for the people to live their lives and then have someone to tell those tales, for them to get passed down. And more in terms of life work—because you don’t need to publish a five-hundred-page poem—although maybe you need to write it. I’m debating this—what does it prove? I’m not trying to prove anything. But the only thing that I know is that I might be in a position to put it in print. There will be a version of it in print while I’m alive. The whole thing.
RG: Speaking of those tales that you could pass on, I’m still thinking about those two that you told me about your grandfather. What do you take those two stories to mean—the school story and the horse story. How do you read those?
SP: In many ways it could be a microcosm of both slavery and the post-bellum constrictions placed on black humanity. On the one hand, the one role that could have led my grandfather away from the plow to something in another land would have been literacy, and that’s cut off. So he’s doomed to work with his hands, to work the land, for the rest of his life. But his mother, feeling that spirit in him that would not allow the woman teacher to unjustly hit him on his ear—rather than have that broken—felt that whatever the consequences of this immediate thing, somehow he would be able to negotiate the rest of his life, because she wouldn’t whip him.
The other one, it’s the personal toughness of the blues. Hell, you don’t let no such thing as no broken bones stop you from being a determined man, there ain’t no need to cry out for a doctor, you made a mistake, you going to grit your teeth and bear it. It’s the toughness. He was a self-made man who had nothing but his good name. Nothing but his good name.
RG: Telling tales in the poem is very different from telling them in fiction. In the poem, you’re working with the language, not just the tale.
SP: I suspect that I will do some novellas on some blues singers. This needs to be preserved, to be put into a different form.
History and Imagination
SP: The fact that my ancestors made their entrance into the West via a slave ship does not present a problem for me such that I would regret my existence now. So in that sense, slavery doesn’t bother me. But I suppose that the more I look at it, the more I doubt that the reason why Africans were enslaved was because they were black and because the slavers thought they were inferior. The Africans were there, they could be enslaved, and the slavers felt they could function as slaves.
RG: So you see it in more materialist and economic terms, or even class terms, rather than in racial terms?
SP: Yes. But I do feel that there is a great deal of anti- . . . or to put it another way, I do feel that the white imagination in Europe is burdened with the absence of humanity in blackness. I do feel that. Now that’s different from the people who are in slavery. That attitude of the slavers might very well be their justification, as they saw it, and may very well be their ignorance. Black people were expert in planting rice—and slavers knew that. Slaves were brought over here simply to plant rice. In South Carolina and North Carolina. They were expert in horses, and many of them in working in metals.
RG: So you see slavery as kidnapped semiskilled labor.
SP: Often skilled labor.
RG: Clearly they were kidnapped for their economic value in building white fortunes. And the racism?
SP: It looks like it comes as an explanation of why they did it. A justification on the part of the intellectual. The intellectual did not write a treatise except after the fact. There is racism. But I’m trying to say that if the slaves had been impractical, and black folks had not had the skills that were needed to build a society, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere.
RG: I once heard you speak on a panel about class, and I wanted to ask you how you saw that issue in African and African American history, and what it was about class that compelled your imagination.
SP: What compelled my imagination is that I am a descendant of the slaves who were involved in agriculture. My entire imagination, at least in terms of my roots, as far back as I can go, is with my people, who were those who worked the land, principally cotton, and that’s how they survived. But I also knew that in my family there were those who had mixed heritage, so consequently they did different jobs. One of my great-uncles was a fireman—his father was white, so he was a fireman. My father worked the cotton field. Class in this society creates the choices for you, not color.
I don’t think that a poor white youth accused of rape has the same chance that a Kobe Bryant has. Kobe Bryant has historical notions of racism against him; pertinent to the black male there is a whole history of the desire for white women and what that implies. But he’s got the bourgeoisie representing him. So when the lawyers come on behalf of Kobe, they’re going to come with bad intentions. They will come to destroy the victim. They’ve got the means to do the kind of investigation to nullify the claim, which means to destroy. When this happened with O. J. Simpson, people did not understand it. It was the first time that you had American law against someone black and yet the bourgeoisie was the defendant. And they come with bad intentions. Even the evidence is not evidence. They can hire better witnesses than the government can locate. Even the timeline can’t work, because they can hire experts to destroy it. If you don’t have the resources, whatever the story is, it goes unchallenged. You get better trained people defending than they’ve got prosecuting. That’s what I thought in the O. J. Simpson case. Very early I did not think that Marcia Clark had any business prosecuting against people who should have been judging her when she passed the bar. She was out of her class. Completely. Out of her class in terms of the law, in terms of jury selection, and definitely in terms of literacy—how you explain it. You can recall Anita Hill had accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment—but Clarence Thomas had the bourgeoisie defending him. And when the white feminists came after him—Arlen Specter and Orrin Hatch and some of those sons destroyed them, completely annihilated them. Because they had that badge of owning the law. And although they are not concerned about what has happened with black men, obviously they were able to deflect all the criticism that the feminists would have had against him. I thought that O. J. Simpson benefited in a very crazy way from some of that—it’s hard to really prosecute a black man vis-à-vis a white woman without raising certain issues of fairness.
So now, being in the university, you see class issues, also. This is more apparent if you look at African American faculty—their politics are often determined more by their class concerns than by their color. The more prestigious the university they went to, and the more prestigious the professor they had—why, some of them are more elitist than a grandchild of George W. Bush will be, in terms of what they think the academy should do, or who they think the academy is there for. They are very concerned that they bring in professors like them, who are paid like top professors, but that concern may not trickle down to bringing in some black kids who are like them and making sure that those kids, who are having all kinds of problems, can get through. In fact, more than likely, they talk more about who should be here than other people.
RG: A Clarence Thomas syndrome?
SP: But Clarence Thomas is not alone. Politically, you cannot get an audience with the bourgeoisie if you question meritocracy. If you question that whole system you don’t go too far with the bourgeoisie.
SP: There is a dual dilemma presented to one, if one is African American, and it is precisely this: first, that our forcible introduction to the West via the Atlantic was an introduction in which we did not have humanity, nor did we have the rights that any citizen would have had in any state in the country, since we were property, since we were chattel. Now I’m simply speaking of the process. Then second, there’s another process of acculturation, whereby, beginning with capture, through incarceration in the slave castle on the coast of West Africa, through the horrible middle passage ordeal across the Atlantic, through the auction block, through seasoning, and through essentials of enslavement, where there’s a dialogue between the cultures that Africans brought with them, which were being destroyed, and their contact with the West. And the culture of the West and the Western heritage did not own the slave ship. The literature of the West existed independently of the slave ship. So that if the literature of the West is outstanding and excellent prior to the slave ship, it definitely would be valid and great after the slave ship. The identity of people like myself whose ancestors came over on slave ships is neither African nor European, so it would be truly American. This new identity is formed here, and I suppose that culturally it would be from remnants, from survivals of African culture, somehow syncretized, intricately dialogued, with Western notions of culture. So the African American, it seems to me, would be the true American.
RG: Ellison says something like that, doesn’t he?
SP: Yes, he does.
RG: But there are scholars who have said that the literature before the slave ship already has in it the attitudes and assumptions about human beings, culture, and race that make slavery possible. That is to say, that the literature, too, is compromised—as when Edward Said points out that the completely domestic novels of Jane Austen have in their distant background the slave/sugar trade. What do you think?
SP: It’s a great idea, but it’s not consistent with what I have come to learn about the slave trade. The Portuguese began to take slaves from West Africa, bringing them to the New World. The data suggest that the Europeans’ initial foray into West Africa was for El Dorado, was for gold not slaves. And to solve this increasing problem of labor in the New World, their first impulse was Native Americans, not Africans.
They even tried indenturing Europeans, but if they ran away, they could change their identity. And you’re talking about a society in West Africa with a long heritage of agriculture, a tropical climate, a settled life—one of the arguments given against Native Americans being slaves was that they were nomadic and could not handle that. So I would reason that the Africans were there, and in great numbers, and the Europeans invented a rationale for enslaving them. And I don’t know if the slave traders ever read Jane Austen. They might have, but I don’t know that.
I don’t think that slavery invalidates the greatness of Western literature. I don’t think that the fact that some people may have used literature to justify slavery invalidates it. I still think that part of my heritage as an African American is Western literature. And I think Western literature is a great tool that one can use to affirm and celebrate one’s humanity.
RG: You said the other day in passing, “How can I take any of the faces out of the mirror?”
SP: There are far more faces when I look at myself, in terms of my history, if I want to look at it chronologically. Not every slave who made his way to the New World had to be captured by Europeans. There were also some black folks playing minimal roles. That’s number one. Number two, my genetic pool has been democratized with Native Americans and Europeans, so when I look in the mirror, I’m not simply the generic dark African. There is far more evidence of my connection to people of Asian descent, and Native Americans, and a lot of people of European descent. And I have no need to take any of that out of the mirror, or to go to war with any of that. The fact of the matter is, I have a complex history; I have a complex genetics, and I have a complex culture. And somehow I have to pattern my way out of that to some kind of vision that would allow me to make sense of my existence.
On Reading and Teaching
SP: The greatest indictment that Ellison made against Wright is that he put no characters in any of his short stories that were as intelligent as Richard Wright. So part of the problem that I suppose I was having was that I was not the bluesman—I was not educated that way, so what then do I do with my literacy? Is it criminal to have literacy?
RG: In whose eyes?
SP: I always admired the poets who were gifted with language, from Homer to Milton. The ones that I didn’t think were gifted with language I stayed away from. And I’m talking about the distinctive mastery of a variety of forms. Looking at twentieth-century American poetry, and looking at the body of the work, I think that T. S. Eliot and Gwendolyn Brooks produced phenomenal achievements. I’m talking about the distinctive mastery of a variety of forms. People can intellectualize this all they want, but for a poet, they were models of what I wanted to do. What they did was not what I wanted to do, but I had literacy, and how can I be true to myself as someone literate? They pushed me into being a poet who was really concerned with inventing and reinventing language in order to make his statement.
RG: You said, “Is it criminal to be literate?” Criminal in whose eyes?
SP: Look, there is no canon open enough to have a concept of complete literacy. Let me deal specifically with the tradition that I am born into. I think there are a number of tragedies. Paul Lawrence Dunbar is a dialect poet. I thought that the poems not in dialect surpassed the poems in dialect. Someone feels that because you are an African American you are more appealing and can represent yourself and your folks better by writing in dialect—that becomes the lingua franca of African American poetry. Or if you look at the Harlem Renaissance, while it’s true you’re looking at a genius in Langston Hughes, who was expressing many of the experiences of everyday citizens of Harlem, what room then is there for Jean Toomer, who is singing about the depth of spirituality? Who lionizes him?
RG: And Sterling Brown is trying to say something about this by writing poems in both dialect and standard English?
SP: I think Sterling Brown is saying something about this in another way. Sterling Brown’s great contribution to American poetry is that he balladizes his blues. For Sterling Brown, for all practical purposes, the blues has become a ballad. “Slim in Hell.” And you’re right—he is bilingual: he writes exquisitely in both traditions. He’s a major poet, right there with Brooks and Hughes and Robert Hayden, and with Robert Frost and anybody else.
I do feel one thing very strongly. I taught at the university for thirty-one years. I don’t believe people should ever teach writing if they are not engaged in trying to produce it at the highest level. As for reading, there are multiple texts always out there, and you need to present enough so people can begin to see how texts have been invented, and maybe that will help them in the process. There is no one particular text that people need to know. There are an awful lot of great texts—but it’s not up to me to preserve the canon.
Here’s what I always thought about the great writers: the only way you can say that you respect them is to try to out-write them. I love Neruda. I love Langston Hughes. And when I say “out-write” I don’t mean imitate. You try to find your voice and exploit its potential, and the quest to say something that leads to the dignity of the human spirit. . . .
You know, poetry is no different now than it was in 1845.
SP: No. Americans don’t know who the hell the important poets are. And definitely do not know what the canon will look like five years from now, let alone a hundred years from now. Everyone thought that Emerson would be the great American poet. It was Whitman. In other words, you need to allow poets to live and do their work and then you study them. That’s what I always felt when I picked the pen up. You do the best you can, and if you do not say anything, you have not committed a crime. But to be concerned about what Poetry magazine or what any awards signify is irrelevant. But I knew that, though. I knew that nobody gave Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie permission to invent bebop. (Although I always privilege Parker and Gillespie as the brilliant proponents of bebop, nevertheless I’m cognizant of the remarkable achievements of Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, Charlie Mingus, Max Roach, Art Blakey, and many others. Bebop represents a spectrum, and I am deliberately privileging the part of that spectrum that is Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.) I knew that ten years after they died you couldn’t talk about jazz without talking about bebop. I think that you create what you create, and either it influences, or it can influence, depending upon whether it is promulgated or not. But a poet’s task is not to promulgate his work to an audience, but to promulgate his work to the publisher. Beyond that I don’t think a poet can do anything else.
Now, what’s odd about my experience is that I come up almost entirely immersed in a folk culture. Then all of this Western and world literature that I had to read, it might have taken a while for the poetic imagination to germinate in all of that. And it seems that the boundaries between what I think about black literature and Western literature dissolved when I worked on Johannesburg and Ornate with Smoke. My imagination selected what it wanted to select. It suggested to my ear the direction I should be going in. Also, I wondered why, since the use of language is such an art in African American experience, why didn’t African American experience try to exploit how you could use language in poetry? I’m still wondering. The poet who did it, albeit in a modernist tradition, was Melvin Tolson. One way of doing it.
RG: Another of the poets who could master a variety of forms. An Armstrong.
SP: A genius.
See, I’m black. Obviously the black aesthetics, black cultural nationalism, doesn’t bother me, because I always thought that the best of African American art was what I aspired to do. And I always thought that the best of African American art was highly inventive. It required virtuosity. What Leon Forrest told me—and I don't know how much it influenced my poetry—is, “Plumpp, what you do is you take your blackness and your folk experience, let it dialogue with the books that belong on the shelf, and let your imagination run wild.” [laughing] And that is essentially what I did. . . .
The idea of great poets—I don’t know. I don’t know how many poets who have lived in the twentieth century I think would be candidates for greatness. I do know that I can count all the ones I know on one hand and have some fingers left.
RG: That’s not very many!
SP: There might be more. But I don’t know. The poets that I thought would have to be unusually gifted and dedicated to create that body of work, American poets, right at the top of my list, for different reasons, would be T. S. Eliot and Gwendolyn Brooks. I thought they were poets, they had the muse—they listened to the muse. The other poet was Pablo Neruda.
RG: You said that you admired poets who had shown a mastery of a variety of forms.
SP: That’s right. But as poets, not because some critic has said so, but as a matter of their apprenticing themselves to the traditions of poetry. But having said that, in many ways I think that the most important poet of the twentieth century in America is Langston Hughes, because he introduces this rich African American vernacular to poetry in a dignified way. I’m not sure he is the person who developed it to its highest level, but the mere fact that he introduced it means that you cannot overlook him when you look at twentieth-century poets. Among poets generally, you would have to look at them over centuries and see what their contributions really were. I’m fairly certain that in Neruda, Brooks, and Hayden I’m seeing poets whose mission in life was to sing and who learned to sing with perfection. Eliot had the advantage of being the most erudite, taking on very difficult topics, including history itself, poetry itself. And Neruda was the most spiritual, I felt.
RG: Despite his great success as a poet of the material world?
SP: You don’t write Macchu Picchu without being spiritual. It comes through. And Brooks reclaimed and found some value in formal poetics in the middle of the twentieth century. It looks like she revitalized the ode and the sonnet—at least to me.
RG: And she reinvented herself.
SP: A couple of times. But Brooks was always singing in her own voice. It’s a tragedy for someone who always looked at the black community, that people would try and look at her poetry between her pre- and her post-black periods. Her consciousness had absolutely nothing to do with the content of her poetry before she discovered the meaning of blackness for herself in 1967. In fact, I would argue that there are no better social commentaries on African American conditions in life than A Street in Bronzeville  and The Bean Eaters . I would argue that, passionately.
RG: To make a distinction between her formal work and her free verse is superficial, in that sense.
SP: But then again—I find it ironic that the poem that she chose to end her last collection with was “In the Mecca,” not one of her free-verse poems. “In the Mecca” combines the best of A Street in Bronzeville and Bean Eaters. That is, the establishment of characters by using classical prosody, the rhyme scheme . . .
With Brooks, you’re looking at a genius, although I think that people misread Annie Allen . I think that in Annie Allen Brooks is taking this form of poetic structure—meter, rhyme scheme, ballad, and mock-epic form—she is doing the same thing with those structures, in terms of her virtuosity, that Charlie Parker was doing with the alto sax solo. People don’t see the virtuosity. And the virtuosity in and of itself is a commentary on what she thought about black life. People don’t see that.
RG: By prizing virtuosity, by making it a cultural and moral and artistic value in itself, that’s part of her commentary?
SP: It’s part of the commentary.
RG: Or should I say, by acknowledging virtuosity? For it’s not that she’s imposing it on anybody; instead, she’s working in a spirit akin to Parker’s. Annie Allen is a bebop book, you’re saying?
SP: There have been poetic texts that have achieved the Pulitzer Prize since Annie Allen, but there have not been any poetic texts that have achieved the Pulitzer since Annie Allen that have surpassed A Street in Bronzeville in terms of technical brilliance.
RG: That virtuosity itself is one form of her commentary is interesting—one can see in American poetry in general, and in the times of the Black Arts movement, that one side demonizes virtuosity.
SP: It’s sometimes demonized in the white world, too. But the problem with the Black Arts movement was that they wanted utilitarian poetry; they wanted a kind of poetry that would dialogue with the consciousness of the oppressed masses, wherever the oppressed masses were—they wanted a functional kind of art, for the lack of a better word. And that would negate the poet’s ability to make a commentary about black life simply through the handling of language, rather than doing it thematically.
RG: When you step into the classroom as a teacher, how does all that come into the process between you and your students?
SP: At two levels. It’s simple. Literature as we know it is defined by its great texts. It’s defined by its canonic texts. I’m speaking of Western literature. Now, I would support the idea that the canonic texts are somewhat more diverse than either the University of Illinois or Northwestern would admit. But it’s just that simple. There is no other way—great literary texts from the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Bible, down to the twentieth century—to find literature. That’s what the standards are; that’s what the definition of literature is. Now, this process of one apprenticing oneself to Western literature is complex because people are individuals. I think it’s too fashionable for one simply to go to school and say, I want to take an MA or MFA or PhD in literature and I want to be a writer. This might not be the way great writers are made. There’s evidence that Faulkner got a great deal of information and technique from reading the Bible and listening to people. The writer, the one who uses his imagination and through narration creates a valid vision of the world, might be too complex for any syllabus.
At another level, though, I do feel that if any apprentice, any student, or any would-be writer can begin to see the brilliance of a great writer and begin to discern simply at a technical level how that was achieved, then one is well on his way to knowing the difficult task of creating some kind of a manuscript that would deserve to be on the bookshelf. I try to get students to read literature, to pay attention to it, on the one hand, and on the other hand, to see that there’s only one standard for literature, and that is the production of a manuscript at the highest level, that would be in print one day. There is no other goal. Anything else, I think, is a waste of time. That is never easy. The idea that literature should be simple, should be for the people—the people don’t need bad literature any more than they need bad food!
RG: Did one of your books, either Johannesburg  or Ornate with Smoke , make you feel that you had turned a corner, changed something, discovered something new in your work? It seems to me that in Ornate with Smoke there is a manner, a method, a certain difference in your playfulness, that is your fuller mature artistic presence.
SP: I think Ornate with Smoke represents my imaginative approach to investigating unexplored places for language—both within the literary tradition, my cultural tradition, and what I could learn from playing with language as great jazz musicians had learned to play and discover methods of playing and hearing music by being playful. You know, technically, the most important book is definitely Ornate with Smoke. Now, Johannesburg and Other Poems is more or less a geography, a linguistic and metaphoric geography of my major concerns as a poet. They are the profound religious spirit, belief, and putting one foot forward every day until a million miles have been achieved, that I gather from my grandparents, who reared me, and that they gathered from their parents and grandparents, who were slaves. And that’s in the southern landscape. Maybe “Sanders Bottom” metaphorically represents my attempt to almost take the freedmen as slaves—but this time in bondage to circumstance, bondage to family, and just through the sheer ability to live and believe, to endure, to achieve longevity. There’s a song. That’s one part.
The Chicago part of my imagination and concern is represented by blues and jazz—although blues and jazz are on a continuum, with me. The way I view it, had I been born in 1870 in Mississippi, with a third-grade education by 1890 or 1895, I’d have been singing the blues. But if my brother had been born at the same and had matriculated at one of the black colleges, I think he would have picked up the trumpet. He would have had more access to the European world, and he would have been able to inner-visualize his voice as an African American by almost inventing an African American tradition out of a Western tradition.
My other concern: I’m an American who realizes that Africa is a continent my ancestors come from. And my sense of social justice is perhaps represented by South Africa. The conditions in South Africa are analogous in many ways to the experience of African Americans. They were the majority of people who had their lands expropriated and controlled because of gold and diamonds; we had our labors expropriated for the sake of cotton, tobacco, and sugar cane. The big difference is, we had the advantage of living in rectangular houses, known as “shotgun”; in South Africa, they had not discovered the rectangle, so that the houses were square and were called “matchbox” houses. That’s one thing. The other aspect of it is that you have the African sensibility, concerning the most technically advanced society on the continent—you have that in South Africa and you have that here. You’re singing songs in Zulu and Setswana, and all of a sudden you are uprooted and you’re in Jo’berg or Capetown, and somehow your folk culture gets transformed into a music that I think is jazz—so it’s a highly improvisational music, like jazz.
Yet another aspect of it is, the trade union movement radicalizes whatever politics that exist. It did so when blacks moved to Detroit and Chicago—you get the Communist Party USA, sleeping-car porters; you get Richard Wright, you get William Attaway. The same thing is true in South Africa. You get an urban proletariat, for the lack of a better word, that is exploited, and from that, some incidents spark and you begin to get a national leadership. It occurred in South Africa after World War II, maybe in 1948, and it occurred in the United States around 1955 with Martin Luther King. So in 1991 in South Africa was when I began to understand how individuals fight for social equality, human dignity, and justice; how they fight with ideas, how they fight by enduring, and how they fight to set up a society free of racialism. How they fight to set up a society where there is no lingering need for retribution.
So that’s my idea. I see that in South Africa, and in confronting South Africa and trying to write about it, particularly the long poem “Johannesburg,” I was challenged because at once I, too, was attacked—my sensibility was being attacked, although I’m not sure that those in power were aiming to hit me, in particular. I so identified with the South Africans when I heard the shots at night, when I heard the curses, when I saw the dead bodies; I saw the subservience that one had to adhere to under apartheid—you know, maybe I was in the back seat . . .
Because African Americans are a black minority vis-à-vis white people in the United States, the word “black” is thrown around too loosely. But in South Africa, you only have four million whites and you have about twenty-seven million Africans and maybe four or five million coloreds, so that . . . whites definitely did not walk the streets of Johannesburg at night like they owned it. They didn’t drive down Lake Shore Drive. They had twenty-five-foot walls around their houses, steel bars at their doors, so it’s another world, and then you see all this poverty. It’s almost as if when I was in South Africa I was at a long period of mourning and crying, and the sunrise of laughter was just over the hill. Whatever that thing called “history,” that thing called “oppression,” “minority rule”—whatever that is, it was about to break. The dam was about to break. There was a great deal of hope in the eyes of people. Their body language. It was over. They had not voted yet, but it was over. You got that feeling. And they had strong leadership, outstanding leadership—they did not need one individual. Mandela is a great man, but Tambo did a yeoman’s job of taking the organization into exile and bringing it back. There were a lot of strong leaders. It’s surprising, but there were a large number of whites supporting the ANC, within the country—like Nadine Gordimer. I suppose at one level I saw all of what I thought about hope and human justice. But by the time I go back in 1995—I have not written about that.
RG: Between Johannesburg and Ornate with Smoke, those kinds of things left your poems as the subjects and titles, but are still in the texture; however, you turned a little and started looking at the jazz man, the sax man, and you became fascinated by the individual. In Johannesburg you seem fascinated by the city of individuals. Something like that? What produced that change in you? What did that feel like?
SP: I don’t know how conscious I was, but for a very long time—when I was somewhere between twenty-two and twenty-three, in Chicago, and saw all this culture that’s here, the first thing I wanted to do was to see my heroes, so I saw Howling Wolf; I saw Muddy Waters. I was here permanently—I was here to live—by 1962. And the thing that struck me about blues singers, that I had never really articulated before, was that they sang with the same kind of idiom and the same kind of pain [as] my uncles, my grandfathers, and the menfolks I knew on the farms—that that was where they had come from, that they had not done anything to change that language; they had found a way of making art out of it. I was fascinated with how they could move people, similar to the way that the black ministers can move people in revivals, or how the black minister can console families at funerals, how they could use words that had that much power to transform what is inside individuals.
RG: Did the culture require you to make a choice between the black minister and the jazzmen—I know they weren’t necessarily the same.
SP: But you’re a strange creature when you’re black and educated. It’s almost like you’ve got passports to all of the world. You’re literate—so in the jazz club you had to dress, you had to observe the manners that were expected, but that’s where the educated middle-class black people were. I can remember seeing Wynton Kelly, piano, Philly Joe Jones, drums, Paul Chambers, bass, Kenny Dorham on trumpet. It’s the playing; it’s the playing! See, it’s a long time before you understand what’s focusing the particular articulation of the trumpet—but it was that man on those drums, and that bass, all of them working together—Good Lord! Paul Chambers was one of the great, great bass players. I’m hearing it, and it looked like he was pushing the man on the piano, and it’s somehow as if the jazz musician had established a kingdom replete with subjects on that stage! [laughing] He was a man, right? But I’m still this black boy in this white world. It dawned on me—the true greatness of jazz men . . .
I saw Sonny Stitt; I saw all of them. I wanted to see Thelonius Monk, and there was a club in Old Town called The Plugged Nickel, at Clark and Division, and so I went up to the club, dressed in my best Esquire tie. I think I had on a blue blazer, gray trousers, black loafers, blue socks [laughing]—tried to look as educated and inconspicuous as I could—I was black and that’s what you do. When you’re black and educated, you’re in this integrated world, you have to relish those moments. And a funny thing happened. I was sitting there, had not even finished my first drink, and I heard this commotion at the door, and I turned—and there was this black man, he had on what looked like a hunting jacket and a hunting cap like they used to wear in the South, eyes red, wild-eyed [laughing], and all of a sudden he decided to enter, and he entered. He bumped into white folks and spilled their drinks, and I flinched and began to say, What in the hell is going on? [laughing] and then he ran and jumped up on the stage and danced a jig! [laughing] He turned around three times and hit the piano and played for an hour without stopping. Thelonius Monk.
RG: That was Monk?
SP: I couldn’t believe it. It dawned on me that you have to be great to do that. Not to alienate. To bring it off. [laughing]
That band was there when he hit that piano, man. It looked like he was dancing—I don’t know if you ever watched him—he looked like he was dancing when he was playing the piano, with his whole body.
And for a long time I was fascinated. Even when I was trying to write about blues, I was wondering, what in the world is making these people? So a number of things led me back to jazz.
Maybe the three people who had the greatest influence on me were James Baldwin—because the very first thing I read by James Baldwin was “Sonny’s Blues,” a brilliant short story about how the musician could create that world, despite being maybe an ex-addict; it was a world. I think Sonny was a drummer, and he was into that world. Then, I suppose there are sections of Baldwin’s Another Country [1962? 1968?] where Rufus and Vivaldo are smoking, and maybe Bird is playing, and he said all the squares had left—there’s something about the people who listen to that music that is in my imagination.
Now, I confront jazz and poetry initially—although some people speak of Langston Hughes—in the bebop rendering of blues by Amiri Baraka, because of his ellipsis, his quick phrasing, his ability to integrate all kinds of art elements into a poem, particularly in The Dead Lecturer  and Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note . Then I’m trying to understand it, but there’s something that Ralph Ellison says about Louis Armstrong—he said Louis Armstrong made poetry out of invisibility.
You know how you look at Louis Armstrong, the big teeth, and you don’t hear what a genius he was in phrasing and singing. He played two instruments, and he played one instrument better than he played the trumpet, and that was his voice.
I don’t know whether it was growth or not, but somewhere around 1980 I went out to a place called Enterprise Lounge and saw Von Freeman play tenor saxophone. The tenor saxophone reminds me of the human voice, and because I could sit so close and because of his manner of playing—you go there at 10:30, he’ll start playing and sometimes he would play till 12:30 without stopping. It is not so much the way he was running the chromatics, but it was the way he was imposing his will on it, stretching out, sometimes staying within, the tradition. I took all these notes.
RG: In the club?
SP: In the club. And when I got back home. And somewhere twelve or fifteen years later, those notes became Horn Man. But the difference there is that there still was a concept of boundary of what I thought you could do with language, in Horn Man. I needed someone who could open up the door to Bird and beyond, for me. I’m not a musician—God knows I’m not a musician—but I can tell you right now that I heard no one in jazz who was as good as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. They’re another world; they were in another world conceptually, and it’s unthinkable that anybody would try to challenge them technically. Bird was as good on his instrument as Isaac Stern was. Now, Fred Anderson played for me an interview that was done with Charlie Parker, in the mid-1940s. It completely blew my mind, and confirmed what I thought was happening. This interviewer said, “Bird, are you surprised that you invented bebop?” And Charlie Parker said, “No.” He said, “In the three to five years before I invented bebop, I practiced eleven to fourteen hours a day.” So this jazz musician is not some kind of freak of nature. The great jazz musicians are artists at the highest level, because they completely mastered their craft, and they are visionaries in terms of the language of music.
I asked Fred, “You don’t ever play Bird.” He said, “I don’t ever play anybody but Fred.” [laughing] I asked him, “What about bebop?” He said, “There were tendencies in bebop. Bebop wasn’t one thing.” He said it’s true that Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie heard things in a similar way. But he said that Thelonius Monk heard things in a different way. Mingus in an entirely different way. So you got bebop and people knowing they are on horns going differently. He said that the music had to continue to be creative.
Fred is seventy-four, and he said something that struck me—he said, “When I used to work, when I used to play regular, I used to practice eight hours a day.” At that time he was about sixty-nine or seventy. I said, “How many hours you practicing now?” He said, “I don’t have that much time, I don’t do but three or four hours a day.” And in fact when I took him the book [Ornate with Smoke], the club was closed, and I heard the tenor saxophone—he and his saxophone in there talking to the walls.
As a symbol of how the African sensibility survives the kind of bombardment that was an attempt to crush the African in slavery, it seemed to me that it was the jazz musician who put the Humpty Dumpty of the diasporic experience back together again.
RG: It sounds like in addition to admiring the genius, you admire the sheer and ferocious work ethic.
SP: I come out of a culture where work was praised, and I saw people who wanted to become athletes who would practice three different shifts a day—they would practice eight hours in the morning, eight hours during the day, and then they would go the gym and practice eight hours again at night, playing basketball! The thing, I suppose, that bothers me is when people suggest that black athletes dominate sports because of their innate physical characteristics—I don’t buy that. From a very early age, if you’re an African American athlete, you play against the very best athletes in the world. What happens in more “civilized,” “higher” classes is that twelve-year-olds play against twelve-year-olds, and they play like twelve-year-olds. What happens if you’re from the community I come from—hell, if you can take the ball to the hoop against somebody twenty, you do it. Because of the skill level. And I think that’s what makes pro basketball—the skill level. Even in my day you couldn’t take the ball inside. No, they would get up there and slap it back. People like Dr. J and Michael Jordan need every trick that they’ve got to get that ball off against these black boys—otherwise they’ll slap it back at them. People don’t look at it from that angle—they should say, “He needed to be that good—not when he was in the pros, but when he was out there on the court.”
So I suppose I admire discipline. I thought that there was a great deal of discipline in the people who were being sold, who were being beaten, who were being executed, who ran away, and who in the face of all that, could produce a classic like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” or “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child.” There’s a discipline, there’s a faith and a discipline somewhere, to create that. It dawned on me how good you have to be to play with Duke Ellington. That’s why Charlie Parker and the others were so good—the standards of playing with the big band were so high. You already had to be great to play it. It’s that kind of discipline that’s the best of both the African American and the American traditions.
RG: Something in your work that starts in Johannesburg and Horn Man and comes into its full force in Ornate with Smoke looks like a very disciplined freedom, a very practiced art of improvisation. An artistic paradox. You keep turning the language, over and over. The poems in Ornate with Smoke move episode by episode; you turn it and turn it. Each time it’s moving a little, and then sometimes it seems to explode for six or seven lines—all the puns, all the line breaks, everything almost sets off a little explosion. But you keep turning it, you don’t let it go, you don’t stop a poem where someone else might at a nice ending; you’re always pushing it further.
SP: Because I think I have a musical analogy. I think that linguistically I feel that the language in the poem should be pushed the way musical concepts are pushed in bebop and now pushed in this highly improvisational jazz. The other thing that I discovered—you don’t know anything about yourself when you start—was that I could hear language.
RG: You are a poet of the ear?
SP: I could hear language. In other words, when I first was writing, and I had a double or triple entendre, it was like an accident, but then I found out that I was hearing that. I had not intentionally set out to do that, but—
RG: But you heard it.
SP: I heard it. I said, I think I’m going to jot it down. My habit is to jot it down and put it on a computer. I really did not know what Ornate with Smoke looked like until Gwendolyn Mitchell [editor at Third World Press] had organized all of the poems into a book. I didn’t know. Likewise, I had this terrible feeling with Velvet Bebop Kente Cloth —are you writing Ornate with Smoke again? I know I wasn’t, but you don't know [laughing]. The challenge of being a poet is to accept all this stuff that you don’t know: you’re going to trial and you don’t know what your evidence is. You have to defend your life, and you don’t know what your evidence is. And in the process of reading it some thirty times to try to catch all the errors, I suppose I saw the difference: in terms of idiom, the big difference is that the imagination in Velvet Bebop Kente Cloth is geared more toward dialogue. And narration. And play—with a lot of a musical concept, and exploiting a lot of the cultural history that comes out of diaspora—although I’m talking about bebop, I’m talking about Paul Bogle, who was a maroon leader. It didn’t occur to me before, that probably the first poetry created by human beings was when they named themselves. So that begins a play with names—the collection of names in any language is a rare kind of poetry.
RG: I failed to mention Blues Narratives . In that book you already created two dialogues. Your mother and grandfather are not there to speak for themselves, but you create dialogue by creating alternating songs, although you continue to experiment with the line and the word, and that is important in your getting to Velvet Bebop Kente Cloth.
SP: Blues Narratives is really an excerpt from a much longer work, where I was trying to deal with my matrilineal lineage in an imaginative way.
RG: That’s a very large book, still unpublished except for Blues Narratives, right?
SP: It’s about seven or eight hundred pages. Mfua’s Song. I had thought that somewhere between forty and sixty, if you had something that you really wanted to say, that you really wanted to attempt, that was very difficult, I thought that that was a good time to do it.
RG: Did you work on Mfua’s Song for many years?
SP: Fifteen or so.
RG: And that was a separate project from the other books you were publishing at that time?
SP: I don’t know anything about other poets, but for me, although I published some poetry in the 1970s, I suppose the full voice doesn’t occur in my work till The Mojo Hands Call, I Must Go, which was already 1982. But then I do not publish another book until 1989, and that’s Blues: The Story Always Untold.
RG: Were you already working on Mfua’s Song in that period?
SP: I was working on it. I was trying to figure out how I could narrate, and make Mfua real.
RG: Who is Mfua?
SP: I was told by an aunt of mine, who was born about 1878 and died about 1982 or ’83—her name was Alberta—we were talking about family members and she told me about this woman by the name of Tympe. “She’s one of your folks,” she said. Tympe was born in 1772, and she died about 1908.
RG: That’s an unbelievably long life.
SP: She was 135. She was a slave in North Carolina. The folks who owned her moved to Mississippi. She walked behind the ox cart and it took six months. That’s what my aunt told me. Nothing else. What triggered my imagination, because I am a poet, was that Tympe had to have a mother. So I have her tell the story of her mother, who was Mfua. About how they came over on a ship. She narrates Mfua. My task was to get a name that sounded West African. Mfua’s narrative. Then my maternal grandmother, who was 103 when she died, has a long narration. All of my uncles and aunts, my grandfather. The thing is, the poet’s part begins in Mississippi, comes to Chicago, and then reverberates as the poet visits South Africa. So this poet’s experience is reflected in what he sees when he goes to South Africa.
I have no way of knowing whether it’s complete or not. Or how to pin it down, to work it in, but it’s a particular narrative that allows me to construct history through family.
RG: What did you feel you had to do to make Mfua real?
SP: She’s a woman—there are no slave narratives of women who came over on slave ships. There are very few slave narratives of women. What she would have faced. Her children around her. Since Tympe lived so long, she could tell that story; she would have seen it. At one point in the story, Tympe made a pact with the Mississippi River. In fact, they were suspicious of her because they would go down there and catch her talking to the river. They sold one of her sons. And so when the master’s son went to the river, the river reached out and grabbed him and pulled him in. Voodoo-type women. I suppose I thought that if the figure of Mfua couldn’t exist, then the poem could not be written. Because Tympe got all of what she got from Mfua.
RG: I’ve read that poem in typescript and noticed that even though you began it long ago, your way of working with the line in later books was already there.
SP: The problem I have—people ask me, Why do you use the virgules? I’m breaking it right . . . I was hearing the voice. And vaguely I remember seeing ex-slaves and hearing them talk.
I was born in 1940, but there were people around in the 1940s who had been born in the 1840s and 1850s. You don’t know they were slaves, because you don’t go around saying this—it’s not that important. But you hear them talking. What did I hear them say? [Plumpp says it in dialect pronunciation and then says it again in language closer to standard English:] “Us didn’t know chickens had nothing but heads and foots.” You hear epigrammatic kinds of things. And you hear a use of anonymity to describe a person. They tell you about the horror without specifically identifying the victim. That’s one of the techniques used by the old folks fluent in the living vernacular: “You know so-and-so had lied, and old master put that hide to her.” The way they’re speaking, it’s almost like it was an instrument. If you are trying to capture the nuances of what they’re saying, the rhythms of what they’re saying, you almost have to deconstruct the sentence in order to illuminate the validity of the nuances of these speakers. I didn’t know how to do it, at first. Because I write by ear. And by the same token, if you have a lot of slashes, then you can . . . How do you represent what you hear in language? I assume that because I write in longhand, I can force the reader to hear what I hear, and the comma is too subtle to do it. Sometimes you need a visual guide so you can hear something rhythmically.
RG: I remember that William Goyen, who wrote prose in the speech rhythms of white, East-Texas country people, said, “They got the speech, I got the voice.” And thinking about your work, I thought, we all speak language, but some poets sing language. It’s not that you have to write something called a song, in a song form, but when you write the language you are singing it in a way instead of saying it. This might be of interest only to other poets, but I see you using the slash and the line-end to create not interruptions but a tiny hesitation and rhythmic syncopation to double the number of those effects by putting the slash inside the short line. I noticed that you did not do that in Ornate with Smoke, but you went back to it in Velvet Bebop Kente Cloth.
SP: It was not done as much, because I think Ornate with Smoke was a breakthrough kind of book that had me chasing these different languages around too much. Did I do what I was supposed to do? I was surprised that Keith Gilyard gave it a great review in African American Review. But he understood the tradition.
By the time I got to Ornate with Smoke and Hornman , it was clear to me that the best way for me to exploit my concerns with blues was to do it as a jazz voice. I don’t necessarily have to do twelve-bar A-B blues. That was not the challenge for me.
RG: You wanted to do what the jazzmen do with the blues, instead of doing straight blues.
SP: That’s what I wanted.
RG: Blues Narratives is more straight blues, and Ornate with Smoke and Velvet Bebop Kente Cloth are more like the jazzmen using the blues.
SP: That’s right.
RG: How do you shape your poems as whole pieces? You typically not only shape a poem out of small pieces, but then you also shape a longer sequence out of individual poems.
SP: I have no concept of the printed page when I write. I write on napkins, backs of envelopes—
RG: I’ve seen you taking notes in a blues club, and I said to you, “I see that this is your French café,” and you said, “That’s right.”
SP: I have to trust my ear. In fact, I don’t even number the poems or say this is the beginning—the only poem that even had a title when I wrote Ornate with Smoke was the title poem. That’s why you need someone who’s a sensitive reader. The editor negotiates the poem from the poet’s head to the public. One of the things that Gwendolyn Mitchell said is that the poems can be numbered—some with titles, some without—and she might have had some sense of how they should be ordered.
RG: She helped you create the shape of the big pieces?
SP: A lot of that is editing. As a poet, you have to hear whether people are trying to interpret something so that the literate public can understand. I thought that she got it. She knew the culture, she knew jazz, she had been through an MFA program, she knew workshopping. I deleted a few things if I thought they would present too many problems for readers. Because if I decide to publish it, I want it to be coherent enough for the reader to make his judgment. I have to trust to my ear when I write—that’s why I write longhand. If I write longhand, I only know how a series of these pieces look when I put them down on the page. Then I have no idea what the book looks like till I’ve got it all there. And then when you have it all numbered right, you have a complete change of perception. Remember, for me it is just one long piece and none of the sections have titles. But the sections are designated by triple spaces in between.
RG: Not a short song but an aria. The long solo.
SP: Yeah. Why long? Maybe some of the things done in jazz, instruments dialoguing, something like that takes space. And although my poems are long, my lines are not long. For me the essence of the line is the importance of the word in the line.
RG: You do just about everything with a word that can be done.
SP: What can’t be done, I’m going to do that, too. [laughing]
I’m sixty-three years old, right. And Haki Madhubuti might have asked me about putting together a volume of selected poems. And I told him: Your statement indicates that the poet is not doing something new. If I thought I was doing something that I was already doing . . . Let somebody else collect it after you die! I understand a “selected poems” as having a pedagogical reason.
RG: But also a publishing reason. Some of your books are out of print and in a selected volume they come back.
SP: I think I’ll do it. But that was my thinking, because my imagination was different, now. This whole encounter with bebop completely changed what I thought you could do with language.
RG: The encounter with Von Freeman? 1982?
SP: 1981 or ’82. But it doesn’t become a reality in poetry until 1995. But I have published most of my poetry since 1993. Johannesburg, Hornman, Ornate with Smoke, Blues Narratives, and Velvet Bebop Kente Cloth.
RG: And you wrote all of Mfua’s Song?
SP: All written in the same period.
RG: I notice that Keorapetse Kgositsile said in his introduction to your chapbook Steps to Break the Circle , “After a rally or demonstration, of what use are the picket signs?”
SP: That’s true. But music has, I suppose, always intuitively been my model. And maybe I was always trying to achieve music at different levels—sometimes blues, sometimes jazz, sometimes Negro spirituals. But I wanted to take it beyond what I simply heard. Whatever it is that I heard, maybe I wanted to, in the words of Leon Forrest, take it and challenge it at the level of the imagination. To be some kind of literary device or literary concern. The problem I have is that I am double conscious. I am not someone who cannot read and write, dealing with the blues. I am someone dealing with the blues who has read a great deal of world literature. And there’s no way in the world that I can amputate my literacy and still remain a poet. I cannot abort it. I cannot truncate it. I cannot get rid of it. So whatever literacy I have, I have to bring to bear on the blues. To come back to what you said, maybe that is why, in my later poetry, bebop and jazz become such central metaphors and symbols in my work—because I see that the importance of the breakthrough in bebop and jazz lies in the mastery of craft, at the individual level. Whereas in the movement, there is a suggestion that you can have art based on collective mastery. But the breakthroughs come through the quest for an individual voice, that literally shows others how to do it.
RG: We’re back to the epic hero. The heroes of the Iliad are not “the Greeks,” but particular individuals.
SP: Odysseus endures for twenty years the wrath of the gods. He has a faithful wife and a faithful son. Maybe that’s what I’m wrestling with; maybe I’m trying to find what the Greeks would call aretê. Maybe I’m trying to find some black aretê. Maybe that’s what I see the task of the poet or writer is, to achieve that.
RG: The individual aretê in the context of the collective necessity and the collective enterprise?
SP: I don’t know that I have a particular—I was pleased and stunned to see Mario, from the Guild Complex [a literary center in Chicago], when they performed Velvet Bebop Kente Cloth, they did it as rap.
RG: What did you think about that?
SP: I felt exonerated. Because I felt that if in fact you were a true rapper, you would look at music like bebop as a way out. And they automatically went there. Their ear—there’s something about what I’m trying to do on the page, it’s consistent with what they’re trying to do when they speak. Because I don’t speak my poems. I’m writing my poems. But we’re dealing with the same tradition. So I felt exonerated in that sense. But also I think that if you don’t reinvent yourself, I don’t think you live, I think you breathe. At birth you get breath; at the time when you find your voice as a writer you begin to live. Reinvention is the dialysis machine of your art. Your literary kidneys will fail if you don’t change and reinvent yourself in terms of technique. But that’s personal. I like writers who are inquisitive and explore either ideas or language. Those are the writers I love.
RG: Well, that’s Eliot, that’s Brooks, and that’s Neruda, poets whom you often praise.
SP: Those are the writers I identify with—not that I want to be like them; I don’t want to do what they did. Somehow coming out of this vernacular, I don’t know why I wanted to look at words, why I was so fascinated by words. For example, in Velvet Bebop Kente Cloth, there are a lot of names. Although at the time, maybe I was trying to play with the names, but it dawned on me that some of the greatest poems invented by human beings were names. That this idea of naming is a way of creating great poetry. Naming people, naming places, naming things, naming gods, naming attributes. And the other thing was this constant need in me to be an individual and to collect these fragments of my diasporic self and somehow pattern that. I’m not just an African American, I’m an Afro-Diaspora child.
RG: To collect the fragments of your diasporic self and—
SP: And pattern it somehow. I think that was the quest in The Mojo Hands Call, I Must Go , in Blues: The Story Always Untold  . . . And definitely the idea of the saxophonist riffing elaborate varied Kente cloth—the Kente cloth being something in Africa, but the idea was that you can take the sounds and conjure it into reality.
RG: I was going to ask you about “Clinton,” in The Mojo Hands Call, I Must Go—which was an autobiographical poem—how would you tell the story of your development as an artist, in addition to what you say in that poem about people and places and political puzzles and dilemmas?
SP: In many ways, Ornate with Smoke began to deal with that complexity. The eloquence of the African American idiom and the formal legacy of Western literature, Western poetics and its potential to expand—somewhere between those boundaries you find what I’m trying to do. I’ve simply taken Whitman and Langston Hughes and given one a saxophone and the other a trumpet.
RG: How do you see what happened to get you from where you started to Ornate with Smoke, artistically?
SP: Artistically—my confrontation with revolution in South Africa. There’s no glory in the killing, in the suffering. So you have got to get to the point where you have set up some structures. So now you can educate people to read and to produce poems, themselves. That led me to the analysis that I needed to challenge myself literarily. There were dead bodies. There had been Soweto. You have a black president in South Africa. What do these children have more than anything? They have a chance to become literate and define themselves and their world. So having this kind of literature that addressed them and their conditions—after seeing that, that disappeared for me; my need to write that kind of literature left me. I would have to figure out how to expand literature and the literary for myself after that point, in order to become relevant. My writing after Johannesburg and Other Poems drastically changed—that was a transforming event in my life. Seeing social conditions transformed led me right back to literature. What’s different about the children growing up in South Africa is that they will not have to write Dennis Brutus’s Letters to Martha  or Keorapetse Kgositsile’s Places and Bloodstains . Their literacy will allow them to reinvent themselves in a way that they don’t have to write those poems addressed to the horrors of apartheid. And neither would this poet need to write that, anymore.
RG: Won’t they still have to write poems about their poverty, the racism that is still there?
SP: But I’m not so sure—since they got control of the government they can develop policies that do something about that. Poets should fall across an entire spectrum. More than anything else, they will need to become major literary voices addressing whatever it is that they address. Maybe I felt that more than anything else: that the revolution prevented their development. What would have happened to a lot of those poets if they had been able to develop during their whole lives as poets, working on their craft, as artists? [. . .] Take Thomas McGrath—he seemed the only poet to have the erudition and the literary imagination to say anything about the worker, the failure of workers’ movements, the independent peasants, the legacy of Native Americans. The odd thing about him was that he had both the training and the literary imagination. I wanted to know, What would he have said if he had not had the training? What would he have said that would have remained? So the point I’m making is that I’m a post-apartheid poet. Telling me that there are homeless children in the streets of Johannesburg—you’ll have to go somewhere else. I’ve heard that, I’ve seen that, don’t tell me that in a poem today; don’t go to Pimville Station [in Soweto], go somewhere else with your imagination, about human potential. You’ve got these kids, you’ve got control of education—you can educate them. Maybe what I’m saying is that the true revolutionary artist has to knock the door down with craft, at this particular time. Maybe that’s what I’m saying. Maybe that’s what I feel for myself; maybe that’s what I feel the challenge is. I don’t think the bourgeoisie has ever had no monopoly on craft! I don’t think they have no ownership of it! They don’t have no deeds to craft!
RG: They have a lot of control over what’s disseminated but not over what’s created?
SP: I suppose that my work after Johannesburg is my application for some of the deeds to craft.
RG: You said something earlier about how it took you awhile to understand what you were hearing before you could get it on the page. You were hearing two or three levels at once.
SP: I was hearing a pun that I didn’t want to put down. Because I thought I was hearing too much.
RG: Every poet should be so lucky, or talented.
SP: I was hearing something else. In other words, the open-endedness was leading me to something I was hearing, but I was shutting down.
RG: But then you let it come through.
SP: I thought about what jazz musicians had been doing—where there had been space, the jazz musicians had been riffing into those spaces. And I said, I’m going to riff, to rip, into them.